David Moyes' Tactics at Manchester United: The Rooney-Fellaini Problem and More

Jonathan Wilson@@jonawilsFeatured ColumnistOctober 25, 2013


The argument for patience is well-known, the list of coaches who, in the modern world, might have been cut off before they’d had a chance to sprout familiar.

In Brian Clough’s first seasons at Derby County and Nottingham Forest, he finished in the bottom half of the second flight.

Within five years he’d won the league with Derby; it took three with Forest. Herbert Chapman was in his sixth season before he won the league at Arsenal. Don Revie just avoided relegation in his first season at Leeds; it took him three years even to be promoted.

And Sir Alex Ferguson—most famously, most relevantly—was in his seventh year at Manchester United when he won the league for the first time.

It is that fact, most of all, that demands caution at Old Trafford. Yet the argument that Moyes deserves time because Ferguson needed time is easily rebuffed: Dave Sexton was given four years from his appointment in 1977 and won nothing.

Patience may be a virtue, but deciding when to be patient is a far greater one.

It's absurd, of course, to be talking about a manager's future after eight league games—particularly when, as Moyes has been keen to stress, those games have featured trips to Anfield and the Etihad and a home game against Chelsea—but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to analyse what has changed since he took over.

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What’s remarkable is how quickly perceptions of this United squad have changed.

At the end of last season, as Ferguson retired, most of the talk was of what a fine young group he had left for his successor. Now, in part because of a bungled transfer window—or at least the perception of a bungled transfer window—the sense is of a jaded side lacking genuine quality and still lacking dynamism in central midfield.

Marouane Fellaini has arrived but has looked sluggish, his lack of pace exposed alongside Michael Carrick.

But there is another issue in that area, which is that Wayne Rooney, playing higher up the pitch as a second striker, is no longer lending his tenacity to help out in central midfield.

That has been portrayed as part of a general Moyes-ification of the team, taking in everything from replacing coaching staff such as Eric Steele and Rene Meulensteen with Jimmy Lumsden and Steve Round, to shifting the shape closer to 4-4-2, yet at Everton he rarely played two strikers, using Fellaini often as the de facto second striker.

The concern is that the use of Rooney higher is a case of Moyes offering a sop both to the player, who has spoken of his frustration being used as a midfielder, and to those United fans who criticised him on appointment for being too defensive.

The difficulty with Rooney is achieving the necessary balance.

He may have looked more of a creative threat over the past month or so, but there was a worrying openness at times even in the wins over Bayer Leverkusen and Real Sociedad, which have probably represented United’s best two performances this season.

The other obvious tactical tweak is the increased reliance on full-backs to create. Whoscored.com’s statistics show that, of players who have started more than three games this season, only Rooney has played more key passes than Patrice Evra.

Little wonder Moyes tried to bring Leighton Baines from Everton—and then, having failed to land him, to get the attacking Fabio Coentrao from Real Madrid.

That is indicative of the increased focus on crossing.

Last season and the one before, United were twelfth in the Premier League in terms of the percentage of total passes played that were crosses. This season they are fifth, averaging 27 per game—more than any other side. Of those, only 17.1% have been completed: the second worst.

That speaks of a major change of style although, as Miguel Delaney points out for Whoscored, the number of passes United completed in a central attacking area dipped last season.

It may be that the increase in crosses is less a deliberate ploy than an effort to add creativity that is lacking, and that Robin van Persie’s exceptional form rather glossed over last season.

So of course Moyes needs time, of course he must be allowed—for a while at least—to learn on the job, but in the change of tactical approach there are clear areas of concern.

The question is whether they are part of his plan or if they are short-term solutions to problems he will address over the coming months.


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